In the TV show Jessie, Debby Ryan stars as Jessie, a starry-eyed teenager born and raised in a military family, who ventures to New York City and becomes a nanny to 4 kids. Born May 13, 1993, Ryan was actually raised in a military family and spent her early years in Alabama, Texas, and Germany. Read our interview to find out more about her early life, and her life as an actress now.
Q: Moving around so much when you were young, were you ever bullied?
Debby: Yes. I was in public school in Germany and I had to learn German really quickly to acclimate. I still got made fun of for being different. Then we moved back and went to American public school [in 6th grade]. My first week there, this boy kicked me in the back of the knee when I was in the hallway. All of my papers flew and everything fell. It was like a really bad, cheesy movie where all my papers, like, flutter to the ground, and I’m like horrified and everyone’s giggling and snickering. The bell rings and people just leave me there, and I have to get all my things and I know I’m going to get a tardy thing and have to deal with that. I bruised my knee, so it hurt to walk. I was just so bummed and embarrassed by the entire situation.
Q: Why are people so mean?
Debby: I was really insecure, so I was a weak target and it just made him feel good to make other people not feel good. I realized it’s less about me and more about him. That was his issue and he took it out on me. It makes you learn quickly and realize that those are the people you don’t want to be around.
When I went to school the next year I saw a girl sitting alone and I sat and ate with her. It sounds easy but it’s a total long shot because if you go and you sit with them and they’re like, “Why are you sitting with me? I don’t know you,” it can be completely embarrassing. But I always found the people that ended up being bullied or isolated, and befriended them. By being bullied, you know what it feels like, and then you get to the point of saying, “If I can keep one person from feeling like this, then I’ve done my job.”
I’ve seen my kids go through it too, the 4 kids on my show [Jessie]. We talked about it. When I was starting to be an actor, it wasn’t a cool thing. It was like, “Oh, you think you’re going to be famous? You think you’re going to be in Hollywood? Oh, that’s so cute.” Like, “Oh look, Debby thinks she’s cool.” So I wouldn’t tell people when I would miss school for auditions or have to leave practice early. I would just kind of do my own thing.
Karan [who plays Ravi] was talking about when he was filming a movie and coming back and people saying, “What you were really doing?” And Cameron [who plays Luke] was talking about how people were like, “Oh, I’m sure you were off filming a movie with Adam Sandler and Chris Rock. Like, I’m so sure.” There are millions of people all around the world wishing they were you, and then you go into school and there’s people making fun of you for being you.
Q: How do you get along with the kids on the show? Do they ever get on your nerves like little brothers and sisters?
Debby: No. They understand that in addition to being Big Sister Debby and Nanny Debby and running lines with them all the time and painting their nails on Wednesdays and making them their Easy Mac on set, that I also am co-producing a TV show, and creating a web series. It’s hard because all I want to do is just sit with them and be like, “Ok, do you have any questions about this scene? Let’s go over your lines. You’re doing physical comedy this week. This is a new thing for you. How do you feel about being in the harness? Are you comfortable?” I mean, they are brilliant, hard-working kids. They’re all so incredibly special and smart and perceptive and fearless. You have to be fearless to do comedy. And when you’re a kid, tripping over things and being uncoordinated and making silly faces, it’s the last thing you want to do because you’re like, “I’m not even cool with who I am when I’m not looking like an idiot.” I have so much respect for them. They’re adorable. I love them.
Q: What has been your favorite scene to shoot?
Debby: There was a scene where I fell into a giant tub of mud. That scene was fun. Cleaning up and pulling Q-tips full of mud out of my ears for the next three days – not as fun. I always like anything that involves stunts. There was a scene where I was in a stunt harness hanging on a window-washing rig, and it was falling and being pulled each direction, so I was supposed to fall and lean in every direction the window-washing rig was. A bucket ends up on my head. There’s a rat on the windowsill. I am barefoot and in a ball gown, hoisted above the ground with pads under me. I have two speeches to memorize, so I’m supposed to coordinate all of that. But I love stuff like that. What’s so interesting is that while it’s a week of set up and hours of rehearsal and stunt rigging and everything, and it’s two hours to shoot, it’s about 15 seconds of a clip that’s in the episode.
Q: You’re always are so stylish. Do you have any suggestions for a girl that doesn’t have a great budget?
Debby: I take things from my brother’s closet. A guy’s clothes are not going to fit you like you’re a chick, so you can kind of play with it. Something I did with one of his old shirts is cut little slits in it and threaded a ribbon through it and tied it at the waist. So you have a bow, a nice little detail and you just gave it a different shape. Cuffing T-shirt sleeves and cutting neck lines – those are all really easy ways to customize things and figure out how to wear them. Look at one person whose style you really admire. Whatever it is, look at that kind of style icon and look at what they are wearing. Look at paparazzi shots of them going to the grocery store. What are they looking like when they’re going to Target? Are they wearing flats and jeans? So find someone with a body type similar to yours and kind of rip off some of their cuts and how it works for them.
Q: What is one thing you wish everyone would do to make the world a better place?
Debby: It’s that classic quote: “Be the change.” If you don’t like something, stop pointing fingers at the people who are doing it. Look at yourself and exemplify that. Exemplify what you want to be and what you find beautiful and marvelous and intriguing in a person, so other people see that and be attracted to it and want to be like it.
Interview by Marie Morreale
Images courtesy of Disney Channel